Republican push for Senate control waylaid by tea party clashes

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WASHINGTON — Most Republican senators seeking re-election next year face primary challenges, underscoring differences in tone and ideology within the party as it seeks to wrest control of the chamber from the Democrats.

At least seven of the 12 Republicans seeking new Senate terms have intra-party opponents aligned with small-government tea-party groups that seek a bigger role in selecting nominees. The groups are pressing Republicans in Congress to take a more confrontational approach against President Obama on health-care policy, government spending and the debt limit.

In Texas, Rep. Steve Stockman, R, said Tuesday that he will challenge John Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, in a March primary. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi announced last week that he'll seek a seventh term, pitting him in a June primary against a state legislator backed by some tea party-aligned groups.

"There's a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party between Reagan conservatism and libertarianism and any other 'ism' you can think of," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who faces several primary challengers as he seeks a third term next year.

"It's just the party's going through a struggle here," Graham said Tuesday.

Some of the Republican fights may not become competitive, and most are playing out in states where Democrats have little or no chance of victory in next November's general election.

"I think that the tea party has something of a red-state strategy," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, referring to Republican-dominated areas.

The intra-party contests are a complicating factor for Republican strategists who want to focus on differences with Democrats, who control 55 of 100 Senate seats.

Democrats are the defending party in 21 of next year's 35 Senate contests, including six in states that Obama lost by at least 13 percentage points in the 2012 presidential election. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win a majority, and the party opposing the White House usually gains ground in Congress in midterm elections.

The Republican primary races are "a distraction" to party officials that may "eat up resources that they want to be able to use in the general election" against Democrats, Duffy said.

Stockman, who returned to the House this year after a 16- year hiatus, declined to back Ohio Republican John Boehner's re- election in January as the House speaker and has threatened to push for Obama's impeachment over his gun-control proposals.

He had $32,000 in his campaign fund at the beginning of October compared to $6.9 million for Cornyn, who has an 87 percent lifetime rating from the Club for Growth, which has intervened in Republican primaries to aid candidates who share its philosophy of cutting federal spending, taxes and regulation.

The Club for Growth won't oppose Cornyn after weighing his and Stockman's records on economic issues and Stockman's viability as a challenger, said Chris Chocola, the group's president.

"None of those factors weigh against Senator Cornyn, so we do not expect to be involved in the Texas Senate race," Chocola said in a statement.

Six lesser-known Republicans also are seeking the Senate seat.

"We'll see who gets traction and who doesn't. None of us are entitled to these positions," Cornyn said Tuesday.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded in 2010 by Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint when he was a South Carolina senator, hasn't decided if it will be active in the Texas contest.

The group is aiding Cochran's challenger in Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Cochran has been politically dominant in his Republican-leaning state, and Democrats likely would be more competitive in the general election if he lost the primary.

In Kentucky, the Senate Conservatives Fund is supporting Louisville businessman Matt Bevin over Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the May primary. The winner will face Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the November general election.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has decided to play a more active role in primaries to back candidates more in tune with its economic agenda, already has paid for television ads promoting McConnell.

In Wyoming, Sen. Mike Enzi is opposed in the Republican primary by Liz Cheney, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Two contested Republican primary races are underway in states where party incumbents aren't seeking re-election.

In Nebraska, the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are backing Midland University president Ben Sasse for the seat Sen. Mike Johanns is giving up after one term. FreedomWorks, an ally of the tea party movement, is backing former state Treasurer Shane Osborn.

In Georgia, the Republican field seeking to succeed Sen. Saxby Chambliss includes Reps. Paul Broun and Jack Kingston, who have clashed on strategy over opposing Obama's health-care law. The winner will face Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn.

_ With assistance from Kathleen Hunter and Richard Rubin in Washington.